I am not what I am, I am what I create with my hands.
— Louise Bourgeois
Centered around the idea of “life’s work”, our new journal series explores the creative practices of our community. The tools, rituals and inspiration, tangible and intangible, that sustain and inform their work, however they define it.
Inspired by her creations and approach to work, we interviewed artist and ceramicist Tracie Hervy. Merging form, function and beauty, Tracie creates one-of-a-kind vessels for everyday living. Each piece is hand-thrown, stripped back to the essential, each surface revealing how it came into being. Tracie started her training in the studios of Greenwich House Pottery in NYC, before attending the Rhode Island School of Design where she received an MFA in ceramics. She currently works out of her studio in Long Island City.
We spoke with Tracie about her definition of work, the non-traditional path that led her to clay, and the ways her practice has grown and evolved overtime.
Q. So that we have the best context, do you mind sharing a little more about your background — what has led you to what you are doing today, and what your present focus(es) are surrounding your work and creative practice?
I thought I was going to be an architect, probably from the age of 10. I was always drawing and painting… I went to Oberlin College for undergrad and spent my junior year studying architecture at Columbia. After I graduated I moved to NYC. The plan was to spend a couple of years “living” then apply to architecture school. At some point I thought, I should probably see what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, so I got a job with an architecture firm. (I was an administrator.) The architects were smart, hard working and had a genuine passion for architecture. But their life looked very different from the one I had envisioned for myself (Actually I didn’t really have an idea of the day to day of the life of an architect, but I think I thought it would be closer to my experience in school.). 10 to 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week mostly sitting in front of a computer using CAD or making digital simulations of buildings. This was how the architects spent most of their days.
One day I was looking through an architectural journal and came across an article about the Jersey Devils. They were a group of guys from Princeton who were thinking about a different way of doing architecture. They actually built on site with hammer and nails the projects they designed. I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to be doing. One of them was teaching at the University of Washington so that's where I ended up. He gave a talk during the orientation and I remember being shocked by his cynicism, about not only the profession but also the education of architecture. And, during the time I was there, he was a pretty marginal member of the faculty. I was receiving a conventional education. One that would prepare me for a job working for a corporate firm, but not one that would equip me for the vocation I had dreamed about. The real tragedy was that we had a beautiful wood shop but didn’t have access to it. For me this would have made up for the deficits I felt there were in the curriculum. If I had access to a shop I could make real things, to scale, things to be used. Even as a modest side project this could have made all the difference, but instead I was stuck with simulations.
I had planned to spend the summer studying Italian hill towns, but three weeks before I was scheduled to leave, I read an article about a design/build firm in Brooklyn. I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to be doing. So I exchanged my ticket to Italy for a ticket to NYC (you could do that in those days) and spent a summer working in their metal shop. It was the best job I’ve ever had. It’s exactly where I wanted to be. I was making real things… not simulations, but things that were going to be used. It completely changed the way I thought about the material world. Most importantly, this was where I discovered, that for me, working with my hands is essential.
After that summer was over, I was prepared to go back to Seattle but received a job offer at a large corporate firm. Because this was what my education was training me for, I decided to take a semester off and stay in NYC. I knew within weeks that this wasn’t something that I wanted. I quit, got a job working with a furniture maker. Then a restorer and refinisher. I started painting again. I made furniture for my apartment; I designed the space and built the walls. I was dabbling in the art world again but very quickly repelled. I wasn’t repelled by art, but the market place that (unless you don’t need to make a living) you have to contend with.
I met a ceramic artist. This was completely random. Someone once said to me that there are different art worlds, and this one, at least at the time, existed outside of the art world I was more familiar with. It seemed very uncool to me and this was appealing. I was painting at the time, and I saw ceramics as a way to start working in 3-D again. I also love that it’s something that can be used. I wasn’t imagining being a ceramic “artist” but a crafts person. At the time I had a small business (not art/craft related) and was painting in my off hours. I starting thinking that ceramics could be a way of satisfying both of these needs. (And it was a great excuse to go back to school.) So I studied ceramics at RISD (but spent most of my time in the wood shop.)
After I graduated, I got a job working with an architect (surprise, surprise). I was making art in the evenings, but not ceramics. All the time there was this nagging feeling, this wasn’t the plan. So after two years, I quit and decided to do it, to make my living doing ceramics. My first few years were at Tribeca Potters. (I never had a real apprenticeship, but my studio mates were important mentors.)
The first few years were about growing and sustaining the business. Now I’m taking a small step back, spending more time playing with clay. Periods of play are now introduced between periods of production.
Tracie wears the Work Shirt in Natural.
Q. What does the idea of “work” mean to you? Does it make you think of specific associations or activities? Does it contour or make more clear, other areas of your life?
The word “work” is hard to define. “Work” is not passive, it’s a daily practice. I’m thinking about what I do every day - the best part of it is when I’m in the studio making things and not worrying about the business. It’s a physical activity, like drawing or playing an instrument, and when I’m away from it for some time it takes me a while to get back into it. “Work” is knowing something deeply, and this requires doing it every day, and being aware and engaged in the process. You can get to a point where your hand knows what to do and it becomes automatic, but I’m not looking forward to getting there because I don’t want my mind to disengage. Right now, I’m still very much thinking about what I’m doing, even in an unconscious way. I think of “work” as a way of getting to know something really well. Like the quality of the clay, how it feels. Being very attentive, and knowing what’s possible with the material I’m working with. And that can change depending on the quality of the clay, the conditions in the studio, and the effect that it has on your process.
Q. How has your sense of your work changed over time and how is the relationship to your work changed over time?
In terms of my work, probably the number of hours. Before, especially when I was starting out, I worked very long hours, churning things out. Now I generally stick to five to nine hours in terms of the actual throwing. A lot of it is more focused. I’m taking my time, not worrying about deadlines and schedules, but giving attention to each individual piece. I’m trying to get the pressure off my back, to not focus on a number or a goal that has nothing to do with quality, doing a certain level of production. I’m trying to give myself the time that I need, and I’m finding that I can get as much done in fewer hours than I could before, because there is a kind of pressure that has been released. By slowing down I’ve become more efficient, I’m learning more about the thing that I’m doing, so I don’t need to spend the same amount of hours on it anymore. Now it’s more about being patient and making something good.
"What people see as magic is a lot of time spent doing, and looking and thinking about this thing you’re engaged with."
Q. Lao Tzu said something along the lines of "let your workings remain a mystery," springing to mind this relationship between a vocation taking on a life of its own, one where the magic of what you do, what you create, is not work that you create but work that creates you. Does this at all resonate?
It’s strange, I feel like it’s only magic if you’re looking at it from the outside. I’m too close to it to experience it in the same way. I see the practical side, the hard work. What people see as magic is a lot of time spent doing, and looking and thinking about this thing you’re engaged with. I remember being in this great drawing class at Cooper Union, and the teacher was trying to instill in us this idea that you need to forget about what is on the page and focus on the model, and let your hand do what it does. I remember I started drawing and for a few minutes I wasn’t looking at my paper, I was just making this thing. At the end of class, people came around and were amazed at the result, but I couldn’t see it. I was only focused on what was happening in front of me, on creating a record of it. I was trying to reveal, express, discover. I wasn’t evaluating it, is it good or is it bad. When you’re engaged in your work, you only see it as magic when you have some distance in time.
Q. Is work (or "the" work) asking questions or unlocking answers?
I don’t necessarily think it’s unlocking answers or asking questions, instead maybe it’s giving me something new to think about, something I haven’t considered before. I think I’m the one asking questions, to it and to myself. The work is simply a mug, a bowl, a cylinder, an object.
Q. What refreshes your understanding of your work?
I think not looking at my work, but looking at the work of others, looking at things around me can sometimes give me perspective on what I’m doing. A few weeks ago I was in residency, and was observing a lot of people making much larger scale work. A lot of them were hand-building, something I have done a little bit of but haven’t focused on in my practice, and it was great to see how quickly people can work and get ideas. I was drawn to that scale, and at first thought I should play with it. But then I asked myself “do I need to be that, to do that?” I love things that are small enough to hold, and there is a scale in my work that feels natural to me, something I want to continue digging deeper into. I was looking at another artist who works on a similar scale, and the quality of her pieces was amazing. What she is doing doesn't scream at you, but when you start looking closely, you realize how accomplished it is. It’s beautiful to be able to make work that has reached that level of achievement, and I think that’s my goal, to reach that level within my own language. It’s a pursuit that doesn't require the work to be larger in scale, it is not necessary for me to go there and explore that.
Q. When work feels difficult, what do you do?
I take a break, walk, have lunch, and come back to it. Sometimes I give myself a set amount of time to work on something and see what happens. I set a timer, my alarm, it helps me to get lost in what I’m doing.
Q. When work feels joyful, what do you do?
I keep working. If it’s feeling that good I don’t want it to stop.